A Future with Hope: Faith
First United Presbyterian Church
“A Future with Hope: Faith”
Rev. Amy Morgan
October 22, 2017
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.
Matthew 13:31-35, 44-46
31 He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field;
32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches."
33 He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened."
34 Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing.
35 This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: "I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world."
44 "The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
45 "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls;
46 on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
Tucked away in a corner of the Space Odyssey exhibition in the Denver Museum of Nature and Science is a small glass case with a single spotlight illuminating a tiny chip of stone. It’s not a valuable gemstone. That’s in another section of the museum. This rock is grey-ish, dull, unassuming. It looks like it could have been pulled out of pile of pea gravel. But it is in this glass case and under this spotlight because it is a rock collected from the surface of the moon.
No bigger than the tip of a finger, this tiny moon rock conjures up images of a place I’ve never been. Grainy 16-mm video footage depicts a quiet, colorless surface disturbed only by the eternal footprints of men in balloon-like white suits, unsteadily leaping about and conducting experiments, collecting rock samples like the one in the one in the small, glowing case in the museum.
This tiny fragment of rock gives me faith. It inspires me to imagine the reality of something so distant and so foreign as the surface of the moon. It even allows me to trust in the reality of other celestial bodies, unfathomable in number, size and distance. Gazing for a moment upon something so small, I am open to believing in the greatness and mystery that is the universe we inhabit.
Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like this. A mustard seed, which in the first century was commonly referred to as the smallest thing that could be seen by the human eye. These seeds were plentiful. A mustard plant would drop hundres of them. And yet, according to Matthew’s gospel, someone goes to the trouble of intentionally planting this tiny seed in the ground.
Likewise, rocks are certainly plentiful on the moon. There’s nothing terribly special about them. They contain the same minerals we find on earth. And yet, NASA sent expensive and dangerous missions to the moon to collect these rocks and bring them back to earth.
The reasoning is the same for both the man planting the mustard seed and the astronaut collecting moon rocks. They are providing what is needed for faith to grow.
In the first two parables Jesus tells about the kingdom of heaven, something that appears small by human standards becomes large and exerts great influence. The “three measures of flour” mixed in with the yeast would have equaled about 50 lbs., and the resulting loaves of bread would have fed at least a hundred people. A little yeast, which we can’t even see with the naked eye, can feed this whole room.
Right now, Jesus is saying, the kingdom of heaven looks like a tiny seed, tiny bits of yeast, a tiny moon rock. But, wait. Look closer. See what happens. A shrub grows, maybe six to ten feet tall. Dough rises to make dozens of loaves. The moon, and along with it, the whole universe, feels closer, more tangible, more real and true.
Faith is, perhaps, belief in the unbelievable. But that does not mean faith is unreasonable. Faith is taking a crumb of experience, a sliver of truth, a tiny seed of reality, evidence of something beyond our comprehension – and trusting what follows from that.
The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote that “The highest and most beautiful things in life are not to be heard about, nor read about, nor seen but, if one will, are to be lived.” Faith is truth that must be lived, beauty that must be lived. You can see this small seed, mix in the miniscule yeast. But you must live the experience of growth. You cannot speed up time or do one of those time-lapse photography pieces to know what will happen. Taking the small thing you can observe, living through days of rain and sun, hours of peeking under the cloth to see incremental change, you experience the small miracle of growing plants, rising dough, an expanding universe.
Jesus presents the kingdom of heaven as a great secret, this hidden treasure, this pearl that is difficult to find. These are not those apocalyptic images of the Son of Man riding in on clouds or John’s Revelation of the glorious city of God descending to earth. No, this is the kingdom of heaven now, as it is visible to us in the present. Small and hidden, but infinitely valuable. Not everyone can see it. Not everyone is looking for it. Many people are completely unaware of it. But it is here. Everywhere.
And it is not invisible. Perhaps it looks tiny. A small and unexpected kindness. A little band of faithful folks praising and serving God. Meeting a kindred spirit or experiencing a momentary comfort in your soul. Perhaps you can only observe God’s reign through its effects on other things. The slow but certain swelling of hope. Rising spirits and energy. An increase in engagement.
The kingdom of heaven may be small, it may be difficult to find, but it is not invisible. And Jesus assures his followers that it will grow. It is growing. He says it will grow into a tree, which is a bit of a hyperbole. A mustard bush can grow quite large, but it could never be classified as a tree. But Matthew insists Jesus said it would be a tree because one of the symbols of empire was a tree. The kingdom of heaven will grow from something so small you can barely see it into something as great or greater than the Roman Empire. So don’t discount it if it seems small or hard to find. Faith trusts that a tiny seed can become a great tree.
In a recent round of hiring for NASA astronauts, the U.S. space agency received 6,372 applications for what would eventually be 8 positions hired. In addition to a laborious application and scrutinizing interview process, applicants are subjected to rigorous physical and psychological exams. Once hired, astronauts train for 2 years, undergoing military-grade physical training and learning Russian in addition to those things they need to learn to operate NASA space craft and robotics. What kind of people would submit themselves to this kind of grueling application and training process? Valerie Neal, who curates space-era artifacts at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, said that astronauts “tend to undertake whatever they do with the full force of their abilities to reach a level of excellence." In other words, they are people who are all in, fully committed, to whatever they undertake. So then, why take on space travel? Our current corps of astronauts includes accomplished musicians, dancers, doctors, scientists. Why would they give all that up, sell out on all those achievements they hold dear, to invest in becoming an astronaut?
Because we have tiny chips of rock that give us faith in something greater than we can imagine. Somewhere along the way, these individuals stumbled upon a treasure trove of orbital imagination or sought out precious knowledge of the cosmos. And they were compelled to respond with complete devotion.
Signs of God’s reign might seem in short supply. Jesus isn’t walking the earth, raising the dead, healing the blind, forgiving sins and restoring our humanity. Our news is filled with tragedy, injustice, anger, and fear. So much fear. Not much that looks like God’s reign of love, justice, and peace.
But Jesus never said when he healed someone or forgave someone – “Look, the kingdom of heaven is here!” No, he held up a mustard seed, some yeast, a moon rock, and said, “The kingdom of heaven is like this.” It is the magnificence hidden within the humble, the powerful minority hidden within the overbearing majority.
When we see it, when we find it – that treasure, that pearl, that celestial orb – we can’t help but respond with our whole selves. Selling our possessions and buying fields is one thing. Radically re-aligning our lives around this tiny glimpse of the kingdom of heaven: that is faith.
At 1st on 4th, faith doesn’t mean we agree on certain ideas about God. It means, as Diana Butler Bass says, that we are seeking an experience of God, that we are looking for God’s kingdom on earth. We are pointing out where we have seen even the tiniest sign of the inbreaking of God’s reign. Incremental growth, bright spots, the flicker of hope, the glimmer of truth.
This church is a mustard seed in the kingdom of heaven. We are small but mighty. There is so much hidden beauty here and undiscovered truth. But we are growing. Not so that we can swell our numbers, but so that we can feed others. Not so that we can proudly stretch our branches, but so we can be a shelter for others, a home for faith. This is God’s work. But it is work that we are privileged to participate in. The glimpses of God’s reign that we get at 1st on 4th compel us to complete commitment, call us to be all in.
As we dedicate our pledges of financial support to the work of God in this place, we live out our faith. Faith that something great can come of something small. Faith that we are committing to something of infinite value. Faith that God’s kingdom is far greater than we can presently see or even imagine. May that faith carry us through the coming year, and beyond, as we live into a future with hope.
To God be all glory forever and ever. Amen.